ETFs Keep Uncle Sam and Wall Street at Bay

Posted on July 8, 2011 at 4:52 PM PDT by

You’ve got money to invest. But it seems that once you have a few bucks, everyone wants to put their hand in your pocket—and keep it there—forever! We’re not talking about your loser brother-in-law. We’re talking about real business partners who want big percentages of all your returns.

In the last 80 years, stocks have returned about 10 percent, while bonds have returned about 5 percent. An average balanced portfolio should therefore return around 7.5 percent over a long time period. If you grow your money at 7.5 percent each year, you’ll double your money every 9 to 10 years. Let us call these “returns before advice and taxes.” This is the baseline.

Paying for investment help can be very expensive. If you pay mutual fund and advisory fees of 2.5 percent, you have a silent “business partner” who is taking a third of your 7.5 percent investment profits for advice. Over a 20-year period, unless these advisers are making up the difference, which is statistically close to impossible, you lose big money—slowly, quietly, and imperceptibly. Your account will grow in good years, but it won’t grow enough. Over time, you’ll notice that everything is becoming more expensive and your portfolio is “small” when years ago it seemed much larger.

If investment advice doesn’t do you in, taxes will. Mutual funds and advisers never report investment returns “after tax” because this would dramatically reduce returns. Most mutual funds are trading machines, generating huge amounts of short-term capital gains. But taxes are never factored into the advertising. Let’s say that federal and state taxes are 40 percent on short-term gains and 20 percent on long-term gains. You invest in two funds. Let’s call them the “Furious Trading Fund” and the “Buy and Forget Fund.” If Furious is up 15 percent, you’ll net 10 percent after tax. But Buy and Forget only needs to be up 12.5 percent, to net you same 10 percent after tax. Furious has to do 20 percent better than Buy and Forget just to get you to the same place!

Smart investors don’t pay much in taxes on their investments because they don’t trade in and out their positions. They spread their money around the world in different types of stocks and bonds in percentages based upon their objectives (called “asset allocation”) using exchange-traded funds (ETFs). They own a core portfolio with most of their net worth consisting of 10 to 15 ETFs to get nearly complete diversity in stocks, real estate, commodities, and bonds. Each ETF represents an entire stock or bond market that is an essential ingredient to a portfolio. They hold these same ETFs forever.

But this is far from “buy and hold.” Over time, the relative proportions of each ETF within the portfolio will need to change. If bonds are up this year and stocks are down, it is critical to trim bond ETFs and add to stock ETFs. People age and should start shifting more of the portfolio into bonds: same ETFs, different weightings.

Here’s where taxes are minimized. After owning a passively managed ETF portfolio for one year, all gains that come from selling the ETFs are taxed at long-term rates. And ETFs have a special tax structure that rarely generates taxable income except for dividends. By trimming and adding, you only incur a small amount of long-term tax, but the gains continue accruing tax-free. The smart investor tinkers around a few times a year, but never “gets in and gets out.”

If you keep Uncle Sam and Wall Street at bay, you can keep most of your returns. If you let them into your portfolio, you may well find yourself half as rich as you could have been.